“Illmatic” and “My Life.” Both albums were game changers – classics in their own right – when they dropped 25 years ago.
“Illmatic” set Nas apart as a rap god among men. In 1994, the west coast essentially had the rap game on lock, thanks to Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” in 1992 and his protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg’s debut release, “Doggystyle,” the following year. Along Wu Tang Clan’s “36 Chambers” at the end of 1993, Nas’ debut helped remind the rap industry where the genre came from.
A breathtaking career opener, the record prepped the industry for an East Coast rap renaissance – and the mainstream breakthrough of Notorious B.I.G. with his “Ready to Die” debut less than six months later. By capturing the attention of rap fans on behalf New York, “Illmatic” also helped pave the way for the introduction of the series of future New York rap veterans on a national scale that soon followed, included among them was Nas’ future rap rival Jay-Z.
Through “My Life” Mary J. Blige verified the “queen of hip-hop soul” credential that a then-rising rap mogul named Sean “Puffy” Combs had boldly declared when she made her R&B debut with “What’s The 411?” Her music had a unique relatability. She was the voice of the “around the way girl.” And with “My Life” she captured every element of a shared experience with songs like “You Bring Me Joy,” “Happy,” her cover of the Rose Royce classic “I’m Going Down” and especially the album’s title track.
The two artists – linked by a couple of collaboration tracks and their mutual New York City upbringing – decided to hit the road together to celebrate the shared quarter-century milestone for their seminal albums. The end result is a live show that honors their respective musical legacies and proves them timeless and ageless in an industry notorious for producing disposable talent.
When the pair emerged onstage at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Wednesday night following a video montage, both looked like they had stepped right out 1994. The show kicked off with their new record “Thriving” – a record released just ahead of the start of their tour – and “Reach Out,” a song that featured Blige and appeared on Nas’ 2012 “Life is Good” album.
After the pair of selections, Blige made an exit and left Nas to have his moment in the spotlight. He jumped right in with a power-packed start that included “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Nasty” “Daughters,” “Life’s A [b-word expletive]” and “Hate Me.”
He flexed his legendary MC status by performing without any vocal backing tracks or hype man. It was Nas, his “One Mic,” a live band that included a magnificent tenor vocalist singing hooks made famous by Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ginuwine and others.
Nas’ set included a handful of songs he appeared on as a guest feature or led a group of featured artists – Missy Elliott’s “Hot Boy,” Ginuwine’s “You Owe Me,” and “Oochie Wally.”
He never let up. His tuxedo shirt was soaked front to back as he showcased his prowess as a master lyricist and live performer through tracks like “The Message,” “Braveheart,” and “Made You Look.”
The audience was along for the entire ride of his performance, but were especially in tune during “If I Ruled The World (which originally featured Lauryn Hill)” and “I Can” and “One Mic.” He led into “I Can” by allowing his pianist to deliver an intricately performed snippet of Beethoven’s “5th Symphony,” which the audience thoroughly appreciated.
Mary J. Blige opened her set by keeping the hip-hop flavor going by way of “I Can Love You,” which featured Lil Kim on the original track. Along with a trio of background dancers that sparingly came and went, she did her signature bop and stomp across the stage. As usual, fans encouraged her with a “Go Mary, Go Mary” and she matched their energy as she bounced, kicked and dropped across the stage.
She kept the pace and energy at a maximum through “Real Love,” “You Remind Me,” “Enough Crying” and “Love Is All We Need” – a 1997 duet with Nas that he surprisingly didn’t return to the stage to perform with her.
Although the tour pays tribute to the “My Life” milestone, Blige gave fans every bit of nearly all of her 13 studio albums in a set that felt sizably longer than Nas’ portion of the show.
Fans would have to settle for a spin session of her Method Man duet “You’re All I Need,” the title track from her debut album that features Grand Puba and “You Don’t Have To Worry” during her second of four wardrobe changes that showed off every bit of her toned physique. But Blige jam-packed her set with something for fans of every Mary J. Blige phase over the course of her roster that included roughly two dozen selections.
She looked phenomenal. She sounded like herself –and, as usual, made up for any vocal range limits with overwhelming passion, power and emotion that drew fans into every single moment. The audience sang along to every word of “My Life” and she chimed in occasionally as fans beat her to the punch with their own unprompted chorale performance of “I’m Going Down.”
Blige made space for some of her more obscure selections, including “Don’t Mind” and “U+Me.”
She put in overtime to make her performance palpable – and even included a dramatic collapse as she crouched down pouring herself into a raw emotional portion of the show that included “Not Gon’ Cry” and “No More Drama.”
She took about four minutes total over the course of her 90-plus minute set to talk to the fans. Perched on a stool she delivered relationship advice and told fans that they themselves were royalty for making it to the other side of whatever personal drama they may have experienced in their own lives.
“After we done cried or damn near died over somebody that didn’t like us or somebody who didn’t want us, at the end of the day – and you can take it from me – I guarantee you that everything is going to be just fine,” Blige said.
The words signaled the song of the same name and picked up the pace just in time for her “Family Affair” finale, which saw Nas return to the stage for a lyrical interlude as they closed out a regal evening for rap and R&B.